The world finally knows what Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has been doing in his desert hideaway during all these years as an international outcast.
He has been designing a new car.
Hand-styled by Gadhafi--so say the Libyans, at least--a prototype of the low-slung, five-passenger "Rocket of the Jamahiriya" automobile was unveiled today to a somewhat incredulous foreign press corps gathered here for a meeting of African leaders.
According to Dukali Megharief, chairman of the Libyan Arab Domestic Investment Co., the car is Gadhafi's personal contribution to world peace--an auto its creators say is the safest in the world, with a bottle-shaped front and rear to deflect collisions, and special devices that actively "defend" the car's passengers.
It is to be manufactured and assembled, parts and all, in Libya, a major undertaking in a nation of about 5 million people with no history of auto production and little in the way of technical infrastructure.
But Megharief said the manufacturing plant is under construction and "pilot production" of the Rocket is to begin within a month. Initial estimates are for Libya to make 50,000 of the cars per year, priced in the "upper middle class" range.
"This is the beginning of the African nation to mold itself for research," Megharief said. "[Gadhafi] spent so many hours of his valuable time to find a real solution [to auto safety]. . . . It means a lot to human being lovers."
The car's introduction came as something of a surprise amid preparations for a summit meeting of African heads of state, being held under the auspices of the Organization for African Unity.
Gadhafi is hoping to use the meeting, which is timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Libyan revolution, to signal an end to the country's international isolation and cement its recent overtures to former enemies. Libya has surrendered two suspects in the 1989 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, for example, and has reestablished full diplomatic ties with Britain that were broken off 15 years ago.
Recently freed from U.N. trade sanctions, Gadhafi has tried to set aside his image as a global troublemaker and turn his attention to leading Africa out of what signs around Tripoli refer to as the continent's "backwardness."
Whether the other leaders attending this week's meeting agree that they need to create a United States of Africa, as Gadhafi has proposed, or whether they indeed consider Gadhafi as the continent's "mayor"--a title that Libya's revolutionary committee has adopted for him--remains to be seen.
Whatever else the gathering accomplishes, it has put on full display the eccentricities of a political system that Gadhafi touts as the highest and final form of social and political development, but which can't seem to produce a firm agenda more than a few hours in advance.
As dignitaries began arriving for the summit, local diplomats were being rushed away from appointments with urgent calls to race to the airport, only to spend hours waiting in a receiving line. Offices have been kept on standby based on what one secretary said was the "rumor of a holiday" Gadhafi was planning to announce in honor of the gathering.
The city has been splashed with lights, flags and posters adorned with revolutionary rhetoric, and Gadhafi's picture is everywhere. In an apparent reference to his turning his attention to the south because of what he regards as bickering among Arab countries of the Middle East, one large sign read: "Africa has no alternative other than establishment of a United States of Africa."
Other posted messages are more oblique: "Kroz cricket is disable to resist malaria mosquitoes so we will throw terror into their heart."
The unveiling of the new automobile was choreographed for suspense, as reporters were corralled onto a bus with no information about what they were going to see.
"There's a very big surprise," said one aide.
"Nobody knows," chimed in a second.
"If we knew what it was, it would not be a surprise," added the first.
According to the news release, which included a cartoonish picture of a Roman chariot without explanation, the Libyan Rocket is "5.15 meters of sleekness sitting pretty on 225 mm low profile high performance tires."
The safety devices include "an intricate network of sensors" and special rocker panels that protect passengers during a crash, while its "sunlight management" system is meant to appeal to people in the Middle East as well as warm regions of the United States.
Beyond those basics and a glimpse of the prototype car, however, little information was available. Journalists were not allowed to see the site of the manufacturing plant or given answers to questions about any outside partners in the project.
What mattered most, Megharief said, is the car as a symbol of Gadhafi's revolution, a "rocket" designed not to kill people but to help them.
"Other powers produce rockets to kill people," Megharief said. "This is for the well-being of men and women everywhere."
CAPTION: The Libyan government says the low-slung, bottle-nosed car is the safest ever made and was designed for the well-being of people everywhere.
CAPTION: Moammar Gadhafi wanted to design an auto that would "defend" passengers as his contribution to peace, his spokesman said.